Understanding Bullying Behavior

It can be painful to see your child bullied by others, causing you to be very protective and angry at the children causing them pain. It can also be painful to know that your child may be the bully. Either way, it is beneficial to understand what may cause youth to lash out at one another. Bullying behavior, at its core, is an unhealthy coping tool children develop to deal with some kind of stress, trauma, or insecurity. It is a way for a child who feels powerless to get power.

There are several risk factors that can lead to bullying behavior. People who bully are more likely to act out aggressively, are easily frustrated, may dislike following rules and may see violence as a way to get what they want. It is not uncommon for bullies to have seen hostility and aggression, or even violence in their home. Often, children who bully feel insecure in their relationships, from feeling that their parents are not involved enough in their lives, to having been rejected by someone, to feeling that they only way to gain acceptance by friends is to be a bully. Deep down, a child who is hurting others is most likely feeling hurt, or has been bullied themselves. They may feel aggression toward others gives them a feeling of control at a time when they feel powerless.

If your child is the one doing the bullying, it can be difficult to ask for help, as they are often seen as the “problem” child and are getting in trouble at school. These children often need love and connection the most, even though they are asking for it in a problematic way. Practicing openly discussing emotions to prevent them from bottling up and turning into aggression is crucial. It is important to validate those feelings by saying that their anger, fear, or sadness are normal emotions and that it is okay to feel this way, while helping them to understand their behavior is not okay. Do not be afraid to seek help from a mental health professional to support your child in learning healthier ways of coping with their overwhelming emotions.

Teachers and other important adults can help support these youth by avoiding harsh punishment. Punishment, especially yelling or aggression, tends to be reinforcing, as it provides the attention children are seeking. Children will seek negative attention when it is easier to get than positive attention. This negative attention adds to the negativity that already led to this behavior in the first place. Seeing the child behind the behavior and avoiding labeling them as “bullies” can be healing. Being a mediator between children in a safe, neutral setting, and making sure both children feel validated is a way to help work through the issue in a healthy way.

Understanding the causes behind bullying behavior can help us be more empathetic to a young person who is expressing a need in a negative way. Parents of children who are bullied can use this information to help their child understand that they are not getting picked on because of who they are, but because the other child has problems of their own that they most likely cannot see. The best way to respond to bullying is to acknowledge that it is an attempt to get a need met and responding accordingly. For adults, that means attending to positive behavior and providing healthy ways for youth to build social connections and a sense of power and self-worth. For youth, that means not fighting back against or giving in to bullies and instead responding with assertive compassion. Acting kind and confident deprives bullies of the reaction they are trying to get. Overall, supporting all children to learn healthy ways of expressing themselves, enhancing strong relationships, and building self-esteem can help children on both sides.